To the Contrary

NYU political brain study based on inadequate data

Recently, The Herald reprinted an article by Judy Peres of the Chicago Tribune titled "Research suggests brains of liberals, conservatives operate differently." No surprise there, but what got my attention was that the study was done at New York University, one of the most liberal institutions in the country. This university has been described in its own student newspaper, the Washington Square News, as a "liberal stronghold" and a "sanctuary for the left." Where did the investigators find enough conservative students to test, and how objective was the study?

I tracked down the original paper by psychologist David Amodio, which was published in Nature Neuroscience. Forty three students were asked to report their political attitudes on a scale from -5 (extremely liberal) to +5 (extremely conservative). As I suspected, only 7 of the 43 had even the slightest conservative leaning, and of these, not a single one was "extremely conservative," nor were any "very conservative." On the NYU campus, describing oneself as "somewhat or moderately conservative" may well mean favoring Hillary Clinton over Dennis Kucinich.

The students were scored by measuring electrical signals emanating from a portion of the brain called the cingulate cortex, as they were given a test in which they were supposed to press a button if a screen flashed the letter "M," but not press if the letter "W" was shown.

Obvious bias

I will overlook the experimenter's obvious partisanship in selecting "W" as the "no go" symbol, and review the actual data, which were presented in graph format. The liberal students were found to have more electrical activity and were faster at button-pushing. This is taken as evidence their brains have "greater neurocognitive sensitivity," meaning they adapt faster and with greater flexibility to change.

As it turns out, scores for all the students were scattered more or less evenly, except for two moderately conservative students who performed abysmally. In essence, the results of the experiment hinge on just two data points, which might be sufficient evidence to satisfy social scientists, but would never pass muster in more rigorous scientific disciplines, where reviewers would raise concerns about the two "outliers," and statisticians would object to the small number of conservative subjects in the study, citing a high risk of "type 1" error.

Weak data

Weak as the data are, the findings were sufficient to energize the Chicago Tribune reporter, who embellished her story by adding terminology such as "right-wingers" who have been proved to "lack...complexity in their thinking." She even declares the study has "lumped Ronald Reagan and other political conservatives in with Adolf Hitler." All this from seven college kids, a push button, and the president's middle initial -- truly the kind of mental leap that only a liberal with great neurocognitive flexibility could make.

I would like to see the study repeated, with many more subjects, and in a place where adequate numbers of conservative students are actually known to exist, perhaps here in the Carolinas. Even better would be a study of people at different ages, because political leanings often change over time. Per Winston Churchill, "If you're not a liberal at 20 you have no heart; if you're not a conservative at 40, you have no brain."

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